Researchers develop new detection method for HIV

Lauren Rahman

A UT researcher led developments of a new method to accurately measure hidden forms of HIV in immune cells, which will help better evaluate experimental HIV treatments in research and clinical trials.

This method can be used in clinical trials in order to see if the treatments eliminate the active form of the HIV virus, said Katherine Bruner, biology assistant professor and leading author of the study. The research can aid in testing potential cures for HIV.

“What’s neat is you could get a blood sample from someone, and by the end of the day or the next day, you could tell how many (virus) genomes in that person’s cells actually have the ability to replicate,” Bruner said. 

Bruner said current HIV treatments suppress the virus and prevent it from replicating, but this involves taking medications daily. 

“The problem is if people come off their medicines, within two weeks the virus will come back and they will start getting sick again,” Bruner said. 


Bruner said the virus comes back because it is in a latent form, which means the genome of the virus is integrated into our body’s immune cells and stays quiet until triggered by anything your immune system responds to. 

“We are looking at HIV cures to get it to where people can come off of their meds and not have to take a pill every day for the rest of their life,” Bruner said.

In order to test the effectiveness of a treatment aimed toward HIV cure or remission, the scientific community needs accurate HIV measurement techniques, said Francesco Simonetti, a doctor from John Hopkins School who focuses his research on HIV and the human host. 

“The study of HIV persistence is very challenging,” said Simonetti, a co-author of the study. “During effective treatment, only about one out of 1,000 (immune cells) is infected and, from the outside, it is currently impossible to distinguish infected cells from their uninfected counterpart.”

The human body is able to defend itself against some of the HIV virus genomes, making the virus ineffective. However, these past methods accounted for both the ineffective and active HIV forms, leading to an overestimation of HIV-infected cells, which can lead to inaccurate assumptions about how well a treatment is working, Bruner said.

The new method is able to measure only the intact HIV virus genomes that will be able to infect the body once activated. This new approach removes “background noise” caused by defective virus genomes, Simonetti said. 

Biochemistry professor Kenneth Johnson said even though there have been advancements, there is still no ultimate cure for HIV. Therefore, it is still important for people to practice safe sex and take precautionary measures to avoid contracting the disease, Johnson said. 

“There is a lot of misunderstanding because of the successes of the drugs in the past 10 years. There is the attitude that we can cure HIV,” Johnson said. “No, we can’t cure HIV. It’s something you live with for the rest of your life. Taking these drugs is no picnic because there are toxic side effects of the drugs.”